On Religious Tradition and Ecstasy (the drug)

The basic premise of Holy Rollers is interesting enough: an Orthodox Jew gets involved in an international ecstasy smuggling ring. Directors could have taken it in a variety of directions from the hilarity of a Coen Brothers‘ film to the fast-cut action of a Guy Ritchie film. In this case, director Kevin Asch takes it between the lines in a rather dry approach that offers up surprising opportunities for reflection on themes of sin and forgiveness, community and tradition, and the sacred vs. the secular.

Holy Rollers tells the brief story of Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a twenty-something Orthodox Jew, who works at his father’s fabric shop and is on the path to becoming a rabbi. However, while he does not necessarily long to break free from this tradition, he would like to stretch beyond it a bit. In love with the “synagogue hottie,” Zeldy Lazar (Stella Keitel), he would also like to have more money to impress her and her family…and to treat his own. When next door neighbor Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha) presents him with a lucrative business opportunity transporting “medicine” from Amsterdam to New York, he gradually takes his chances. Even after learning that the medicine is ecstasy, he continues to work for boss Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser). As Sam progresses further into the “business” and Joseph begins to lose control, their lives spiral in directions they never imagined.

As I mentioned above, this is a very simple film. There’s no great cinematography or mind-blowing soundtrack. Director Asch seems to know what he wants from the film and gets it. Every actor’s performance is just fine, and Eisenberg nails a purposefully angst-filled role. That the film itself is grounded in real life events will be enough to sustain most viewers’ attention.

Sam (left) moves deeper into Jackie's (middle) drug trade.

Thankfully Asch and writer Antonio Macia do not let the religious aspects overshadow the narrative, even as they allow it to form the foundation of the film. Of course, Orthodox Judaism provides a seemingly perfect cover for Jackie’s drug mules. Their religious garb and quiet personalities combined with lax pre-9/11 airport security (the events take place from 1998-1999) helped them smuggle close to one million pills. Yet Sam’s Orthodox Judaism also provides, if occasionally unsubtle, a strong moral backbone to the film. Throughout the film, Asch takes us back to scenes of Sam’s rabbi reading the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis, particularly the point at which they hide from God after partaking of the forbidden fruit. In Genesis 3: 8-9, we read, “They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” Of course, God knows full well the answer to God’s (Hashem’s) question. The rabbi asserts that the question is for Adam and Eve to consider, not a sign of God’s ignorance. It is for them to examine their location in relation to God: are they moving closer to or further away from God?

This, of course, parallels and informs Sam’s experiences as he delves further into the illegal drug trade and further away from his faith and its traditions. His journey is also influenced by members of the drug community that embrace him and those in the faith community (particularly his father and Yosef’s younger brother) that push him away. Neither the drug (secular) or Orthodox (sacred) communities can sustain him on their own. Sam needs both. This is made even more clear when Sam meets a welcoming Jew, a stranger in Amsterdam. When stranger invites him to do a mitzvah, Sam begins to hurriedly put on the tefillin, and as he does so, he looks and acts as if he is tying off for a dose of heroin. Of course, there is a double meaning here: this religious tradition sustains and comforts him, but at the same time, as it has done with his father, it can also “corrupt” when not balanced with other experiences in life (not necessarily trading in illegal drugs, however).

In the conclusion, we see a glimpse of redemption, although some viewers might not be satisfied with it. Asch does telescope the religious/theological aspects of his film in the last twenty minutes, but rather than distracting from the film, it adds a poignant emotional depth that improves upon the “will they or won’t they get caught” scenario that dominated much of the middle of the film. In the end, Holy Rollers brings together Orthodox Judaism (the sacred) and ecstasy smuggling (the secular) in interesting ways that are neither exploitative or pedantic.